January 2007 Millard Grimes
The Atlantic magazine's 100 Most Influential Figures in American History.
Lists of the best 10 or 100 are surefire attention-grabbers. When I was publisher and editor of Georgia Trend, the favorite edition each year was the one with Trend’s list of the 100 Most Influential Georgians, along with a Georgian of the Year.
Time magazine originated the basic idea in 1923 with its first Man of the Year – Joe Cannon, legendary speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1903-1911.
The Atlantic magazine has come up with a list of the 100 Most Influential Figures in American History, for which the magazine polled 10 eminent historians. As The Atlantic admits, the results are unscientific but “rewarding and intriguing.”
The lists I helped compile for Georgia Trend also fit that description. They were even less “scientific” – but definitely intriguing.
Here’s the Top 10 from The Atlantic‘s list: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Edison and Woodrow Wilson.
Lincoln’s number one ranking isn’t surprising, although some Southerners would argue; but that’s the purpose of lists: to create arguments and perhaps teach a little history to a history-deprived generation. The Atlantic‘s argument for Lincoln is: “He saved the Union, freed the slaves and presided over America’s second founding (or revolution).”
Washington, of course, led the army in the first American revolution, and then presided over the creation of the new nation. In a period when kings ruled nearly everywhere and republics were virtually nonexistent, Washington chose to be a president instead of a king, and that has made all the difference.
Jefferson is ranked third for writing the Declaration of Independence. But in nearly all lists of the greatest presidents, the number four person on The Atlantic‘s list is ranked above Jefferson. That is Franklin D. Roosevelt, arguably a competitor to Washington and Lincoln.
Among his contributions, Roosevelt presided over the third American revolution, which actually influences our lives in 2006 more than the first two. Washington and Jefferson created a new kind of nation, but limited its democratic participation to only a third of the population.
Lincoln kept the nation together as it sought to resolve divisions that had festered during the four score and seven years since the founders left them for later generations. But Roosevelt’s revolution created the modern nation and raised the United States to its position as the world’s pre-eminent power.
After the first four Atlantic names there is more cause for debate. Hamilton was the first secretary of the treasury, and Jefferson’s fierce opponent. Jefferson wanted the United States to remain a predominantly pastoral or agrarian society. Hamilton foresaw an industrial, urban society.
Franklin was the first real newspaperman, so I have always had a liking for him; but he was so much more. He co-wrote the Declaration and was a key architect of the U.S. Constitution when he was in his 80s. He should be in the top five.
John Marshall, an early chief justice of the Supreme Court, wouldn’t be in my Top 10; he is probably the most unfamiliar name on this list. Thomas Edison, the inventor who gave us the electric light and the movie projector, influenced our daily lives as much as anyone on the list.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was the catalyst for many advances for African Americans, but President Lyndon Johnson passed the laws that made them possible.
The Wright Brothers would get my vote to finish in the Top 10, although they ranked 23rd on The Atlantic list. Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller are other worthy candidates, and all in The Atlantic‘s Top 30.
For more on The Atlantic listing, check the magazine’s Web site, www.theatlantic.com.
Incidentally, Joe Cannon, Time‘s first Man of the Year, was one of two Speakers of the House to be so honored. The other: Georgia’s Newt Gingrich.
Millard B. Grimes is publisher emeritus of Georgia Trend. Portions of this column were published in Grimes’ weekly newspaper, The Harris County Journal.